Natalie Kassanga and Jay Perry join the cast as Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.
Director Marianne Elliott celebrates an illustrious career in theatre, with notable credits on both side of the Atlantic. Her vision has seen her lauded with Tony Awards for Best Direction for both the Broadway production of War Horse, alongside co-director Tom Morris, and Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, which also was awarded Best Play. The latter also resulted in her receiving the coveted Olivier Award for Best Director. Yet for Marianne, awards are simply a bi-product of her impressive drive, borne out of a impulse to prove herself.
“God, what would my dad think of this?” she asked when accepting the Olivier Award in 2015. As she reaffirms in our interview below, much of her ambition comes from her experiences with her father, director Michael Elliott. Growing up in the male dominated world of theatre, Marianne was determined to break out on her own terms, and to shake up the art’s conventions.
This desire continues into the present day, set to bring Company back to the West End. The musical reimagines the lead character, traditionally the male Bobby, as Bobbi, to be played by West End star Rosalie Craig. For Marianne it’s important to showcase that themes represented in the Sondheim classic are by no means gender specific.
The switch is testament to Marianne’s role as one of theatre’s most celebrated women. From the outside, it seems she has reached the goal she set out early on in her career, as influential and applauded as her male counterparts (if not more so). Yet there’s no slowing down for Marianne Elliott. Currently directing the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, fittingly a groundbreaking play for a marginalised group in society, she returns to London for Company this September – casting Broadway heavyweight Patti LuPone alongside Rosalie Craig and British comedian Mel Giedroyc.
As we celebrate 100 years since women’s suffrage here in the UK, we caught up with Marianne Elliott to find out more about her rise as a women in theatre.
What was your first non-theatre job, and how did you feel about it?
Well I did a lot of waitressing over the years, to supplement uni etc. But my first main job, I suppose, was working as an Assistant Casting Director in TV and Film. It was a brilliant training ground. I met a lot of actors, saw a lot of theatre, and learnt the skill of good interviewing or auditioning. A dying art. But I eventually got frustrated for two reasons; the minute the real work started on the story, we were off casting something else, and all the directors and producers, who had the ultimate say over who was cast, were men!
Who or what was your biggest influence when approaching theatre?
My father was one. He was a huge character in my life. I actually think he inspired and scared me off going into the theatre. He was a giant. It was hard to be in the same forum as that. Then Greg Hersov at the Royal Exchange was a major mentor. He saw I had talent way before I acknowledged it. And he allowed me a voice and space to try and fail and play and grow with my work.
What piece of advice would you love to give to your younger self?
No one has the right answers. When directing theatre, the market place out there is very competitive and aggressive actually. Directors are a weird race and they’d let you believe that no one is as good as them. It’s not true. Everyone is finding different ways of expressing. That’s all it is.
Also, a mantra I have very recently come to adopt: Be Prepared to Disappoint Others in Order To Be True to Yourself.
You’re directing Angels in America over on Broadway. How is that going, and how does it differ from the UK?
It’s going well. Everyone is coping brilliantly with the enormity of the project, and the pressure of Broadway. They have become quite a tight family in the rehearsal room. Which is needed. The scope of the piece is enormous. I honestly think Tony Kushner is a living Shakespeare. And his work is searing and inspiring and demanding and brilliant. We are trying to meet it!
The show should be better in America. We loved doing it at the National, but some things we never had time to really polish, or think through again, which they needed. In my book, there’s no point re-hashing live theatre. Why leave friends and family for three months to do just that? It has to be better, better, better. It’s a great opportunity to visit it again.
Your next show in the West End will be Company, which gender-swaps the lead role – what was the motivation for this? And why do you think it’s an important story to tell from a female perspective?
I have always loved Company. The music is wonderful. Starting my own theatre company (with Chris Harper) emboldened me to think about the projects I really wanted to do. This was one. But it was written in the early 70s and maybe feels a little alien to us now? However, making Bobbi a woman makes it very pertinent, I feel, again. A lot of women in their mid thirties, like Bobbi, are in the throes of wondering whether they should “settle down” and juggling with what that might mean to their future, their career, and their independence. This is the main tenure of the story.
What tips would you give to aspiring women in the theatre industry?
Keep going! Stop looking at the mountain ahead that seems insurmountable. Day by day. Keep going. Just think about the next step.
Marianne Elliott directs Company, starring Patti LuPone, Rosalie Craig and Mel Giedroyc, opening in the West End this September. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk.
Photo by Helen Maybanks
Words by Ben Tipple
Interview by Matt Buttell